HOUSTON -- James Harden says he strives for the big moments because when you want to be a star in this league, you need to take over games.
With the season nearing a collapse, it was Harden who kept the Houston Rockets from falling into a hole where there appeared to be no escape.
Harden scored a game-high 35 points, including the go-ahead bucket with 2.7 seconds left, and extended the Rockets' season until next week with a 97-96 heart-stopping victory over the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night.
In a scatterbrained fourth quarter, it was Harden who made the biggest shot of the night. With his team down one and no timeouts, Harden calmly got the ball down court and nailed a step-back 10-footer as Andre Iguodala was late to close out.
The Toyota Center crowd erupted on the basket as they looked for something special from a team that had underachieved badly.
"The last shot was typical of what James does," interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "The move we've seen before, the finish we've seen before, the hold of the ball we've seen before. You do get spoiled by it. At times, in these moments, the biggest of moments, you can't but help but appreciate it."
After Harden hit the basket the Toyota Center went bonkers for him and his teammates. Even Dwight Howard held his hand out to slap five with his starting shooting guard.
Harden had disappeared as much as Howard had in this series before Thursday. The Warriors had held Harden to 36.8 percent shooting from the field and held him to 4-of-13 from 3-point range. Though Harden had led the league in foul shots, he had zero free throws in Game 1. He did make 13 in Game 2, but only two came in the second half.
"James has been phenomenal all year," Patrick Beverley said. "You expect nothing but a high-level play out of him and he's been doing that the entire season."
Harden displayed his all-around game against the Warriors: Early lob passes to Howard led to dunks. He had a crossover on Iguodala to make a 3, a nasty one-handed dunk on a fundamental bounce pass from Beverley, and he drew a four-point play on Draymond Green.
The four-point play on Green in the third quarter had everyone on the Warriors bench shaking their heads. Harden took his shot and leaned his arms into Green, who just couldn't avoid the contact. Each man fell down, and when the whistle came out, Warriors coach Steve Kerr jumped up and walked down the bench with hands over his face.
Green was in shock.
"I got questions about that play, but I'm going to save my money," Green said.
In the fourth quarter, Harden made another 3 over Green, of course, and gave the Rockets a four-point lead. As the two men ran back down the floor, Harden gave Green a small nod and a smile that seeped through the beard. Green finally smiled too as the two men acknowledged the respect they have for each other.
"Every time I shoot it, I told him it was going to go in," Harden said. "Obviously it didn't. The one I made, I made sure he knew."
For the Rockets to make this a competitive series -- and on the surface being down one game with a home contest on Sunday gives it that appearance -- Harden has to almost do more. His nine assists were fantastic and his eight rebounds were strong, but he also had a team-high four turnovers.
The attention he draws from the Warriors, particularly late in the game, however, tells you everything about how special he is.
"He was good," Green said of Harden. "We got to be better in our coverages and I don't think we were good in our coverages like we were the last two games, so that's something we got to take a look at."
As the Rockets tried to close the deal with a trio of inbound passes, Harden couldn't get free, being held as he tried to move through scrums. Trevor Ariza threw a pass over Michael Beasley's head that led to the Warriors stealing the lead with 10.6 seconds left.
A stunned crowd anticipated a 3-0 Warriors lead in the series. Instead, with no timeouts, Harden gave the fans and his team hope for another week.
"A lot of people will just get nervous and don't like being in that situation," Harden said. "For me, I strive [for] moments like that, so you just have to have confidence."